STORIES BY BRUCE ORWALL
WITH A NAME THAT CAN'T BE PRONOUNCED and the word "slave" scrawled on his cheek, Prince has put his faithful through a mighty test of patience in the past year.
Fans may be put off by Prince's oddball star turns, but one group is a little testier than others: his creditors.
Paisley Park Enterprises, the company that oversees most of Prince's business interests, is not paying its bills on time or at all. From the Twin Cities to Los Angeles, businesses that have done work for Prince say they must hound the pop star for payment and even take him to court.
Some Twin Cities companies have stopped working with Paisley Park. Others now demand payment upfront for services. One Minneapolis film producer declared bankruptcy last year after Paisley refused to pay a $400,000 debt, then settled the bill 10 months late for 70 cents on the dollar.
"People haven't gotten paid, it's absolutely true," says Randy Adamsick, president of the Minnesota Film Board.
Since soaring to multimillion-dollar fame with the "Purple Rain" film and soundtrack in 1984, Prince has operated as if money is no object, according to interviews with nearly 30 former employees and business associates. Despite earnings that easily top $150 million since then, the 36-year-old Minneapolis native has twice found himself in severe financial disarray -- first in 1989, and again today.
His associates blame Prince's habit of spending lavishly on his creative projects, with a cavalier disregard for budgets and professional advice.
"He'll say, 'We do this, this and this, and pretty soon...Jurassic Park!'" said Jenifer Carr, former chief financial officer of Paisley Park Enterprises. "He always thinks every project he works on is a home run, and the reality is it isn't."
Creditors say they don't even know who to badger for payment anymore because Paisley Park is in such chaos. Every key company executive has quit or been fired by Prince in recent months, as have a slew of lower-level workers.
Meanwhile, Prince is locked in a cryptic sparring match with his label of 17 years, Warner Bros. Records, rooted in his desire to release new material more frequently. That battle prompted his much-ridiculed name change to and his declarations that "Prince is dead" and that his Warner Bros. contract amounts to "institutionalized slavery."
Despite lagging record sales, Prince's exalted place in the pantheon of contemporary music is not in question. Few who have worked with Prince question the artistic direction of a man who ranks more with Miles Davis and John Coltrane than with the Michael Boltons and Jon Secadas with whom he shares chart space.
But even hard-core fans are starting to wonder where his career is headed.
"He's losing a lot of his fans," said Nathan Wright of Minneapolis, who operates a 900 line that trades in Prince information. "A lot of his fans are tired of it. It's like a gigantic game that only he seems to know the rules to."
Prince declined to discuss Paisley's troubles. Through a Los Angeles publicist, the company issues a one-sentence statement: "There were management changes in 1993 and 1994, and we look forward to a happy and prosperous 1995."
A LATE-NIGHT PHONE CALL has typically meat one thing for Paisley Park employees: Prince wants something done.
"He'd call on Friday night and want a set for Saturday morning," said Blaine Marcou, who owned a company that did Prince's set design for several years. "We'd work all night. Then he'd come in a 4 a.m., look at it and say, 'I'm too tired. Go home.'"
But the money was already spent. Prince's snap decisions might cost $20,000 or more, but many associates say he doesn't seem to care. In Los Angeles, he often pays to have a crew of recording engineers on hand around the clock while he is in town, whether he plans to show up or not.
"Where other guys go out and buy cars and buy drugs and buy jets," said Steve Fargnoli, the manager who guided Prince to stratospheric success from 1978 to 1988, "this kid is not interested in that. He's interested in things that satisfy his creative urge. They may not be intelligent business decisions."
Prince strikes the same risk-taking profile in business as in art. His style is hit and run; try something fast, and if it doesn't work, move on to something else.
In a meeting, Prince will often listen impassively while advisers tell him why something can't be done. When they finish, says Rob Borm, the Minneapolis filmmaker whose company went bankrupt, Prince will remind them whose ideas got them all there in the first place, then say: "I'll bet the house on this one."
When one project doesn't pan out, Prince makes the same bet on the next one. That willingness to spin the wheel and create a kaleidoscopic musical vision is part of Prince's appeal as an artist. But it has proved a costly way to do business.
"Part of Prince's creative energy is fueled by walking the edge," said Craig Rice, former director of operations for Paisley Park Studios. "I don't have a problem with walking the edge. The problem is, you've got to win occasionally."
Prince's associates point to his penchant for investing large sums of little or no commercial value: an erotic stage version of "Ulysses" that cost several hundred thousand dollars in 1993; the recent introduction of a cheaply packaged "poly-gender fragrance" called "Get Wild"; expensive stage sets and band rehearsals for tours that never occur.
And while he has taken to saying that "music should be free," he clearly wants to be paid for the use of his image. Shown how much his activities are discussed on the Internet, Prince talked about trying to start his own on-line service, Carr said.
More expensive still is Prince's non-stop production of music videos. Record companies consider music videos promotional tools whose sole purpose is to get MTV airplay and sell records. They are usually made only for the singles the artist releases.
But Prince makes videos for an entire albums that never see a second of MTV time and are not financed by his record company. He makes videos for songs he has recorded but will never release. And he shoots footage that is of no apparent value to anyone but himself: Prince driving around Los Angeles in his new gold Mustang, or playing on the beach with dancer Mayte from his band, the New Power Generation.
"I call it his home movies," said Bill Felker, a former Paisley Park production manager.
Most associates recognize it as plain wasteful. "It's like Vietnam," said Rice. "They just shoot and shoot. They don't even know who the enemy is anymore."
The people hired to do the work normally wouldn't care what Prince intends to do with the products, as long as they get paid. But Prince's recent antics with Warner Bros. have struck a raw nerve when employees and vendors are being stiffed.
"He talks about himself being a slave to Warners," said Heidi Presnail, former Paisley Park wardrobe director. "Hello? Let me knock on your door. We don't work for free."
PRINCE'S PROBLEM isn't a lack of earnings. Even though his commercial fortunes aren't what they once were, he may still earn $10 to $20 million in a given year from record advances, publishing royalties and fees for producing other artists .
That money goes to Paisley Park Enterprises, the company that owns the $10 million Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen and acts as an umbrella for most of Prince's activities.
Some companies working with Paisley report slow but regular payments. "They've fulfilled all obligations to us on every level," said Gerry Wenner, vice president of the Los Angeles production company Planet.
But Paisley's freewheeling spending and subsequent inability to manage it have taken their toll on a growing list of people who do business with the company.
People like Gary and Suzy Zahradka, a St. Paul couple who made the ornate canes that Prince toted to French fashion shows and Monte Carlo parties last year. Their $4500 bill was nearly half a year late when they filed suit against Paisley Park in Carver County District Court in November. Paisley settled the case in late December.
While some have gone to court, others have simmered in silence when Paisley Park snubbed their bills or arbitrarily cut in half the fees for a makeup artist or hairstylist.
"There's a lot of little guys out there," said Julie Hartley, a former Paisley Park production manager. "I have a friend who used to borrow money from his mom to pay his mortgage" because of Paisley's nonpayment.
The big guys have not had much better luck. Northwest Teleproductions in Edina has worked on Prince-related projects for several years. Paisley Park has always been a slow payer, said Northwest President Bob Mitchell, but a few months ago the payments on a months-old debt in the tens of thousands of dollars simply stopped. When the company called to collect, it finds confused employees trying to piece things together.
"Mostly, we just meet with the frustration of employees over there," Mitchell says. "There's often continual replacement of middle-management-type people over there.... The people that created the work simply aren't there anymore."
Broken promises extend beyond the Twin Cities. In Los Angeles, Prince spends about $500,000 a year to have a crew ready for him at The Record Plant, a recording studio where he works when away from Paisley Park Studios.
Until last year, Prince's representatives have always paid the bill on time. But last summer, said a source close to the situation, a $150,000 bill went five months without payment. The debt was not paid until Paisley Park called asking for a master tape Prince had recorded there. The studio owners struck a deal: Pay the debt and you can have your tape. The bill was paid the same afternoon.
Smaller vendors usually do not have Princely valuables to take hostage.
Jim Mulligan, owner of the Minneapolis company Videoworks, did one project for Paisley Park last spring. His $1,400 bill languished for months before he waged a time-consuming collection campaign.
Each morning, Mulligan faxed Paisley an invoice detailing his work. Then he called the accounting department, where he was thwarted each day by voice mail. Then he began faxing his invoice twice a day. For six weeks, there was no response.
One morning late last summer, Mulligan simply announced to the Paisley Park voice mail that he expected the check to be waiting for him at the front desk that afternoon. His strategy worked -- the check was there.
"I never talked to an actual human being," he said.
ROB BORM'S PITCH to Prince was: "Hire me. I'm young. I'm hungry. I can make you some money."
Three years later, Borm's association with Paisley led to the end of his business.
Borm says the story of his association with Paisley Park is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. He had just launched his film production company, Point of View Films, in 1991 when Prince gave him a break, hiring him to produce a video for the hit song "Gett Off."
The instructions from Paisley Park Enterprises President Gilbert Davison were vague: "Prince wants his yellow suit in it, and he wants his yellow car in it, and he wants it to look a little like 'Caligula,'" a reference to the 1980 film that oozed Roman decadence.
Borm crunched a careful budget that would bring in the two-day shoot well within the $220,000 allocated by Warner Bros. for the project. According to Borm, Davison barely looked at it, saying: "Oh, by the way, there's probably going to be quite a few changes to the concept."
By the time it was completed, the "Gett Off" video had cost $1.3 million over seven days -- the overruns owing to Prince's desire to keep shooting on the surreal fall-of-Rome set Borm created, stocked at Prince's request with erotic imagery and women recruited from a local strip club.
When Paisley was slow to pay the million-dollar overrun, Borm began a two-year high-wire act with his own creditors, as he produced 47 more music videos without the aid of a budget.
The fast and loose spending caught up with him two years later. In summer 1993, Borm was preparing to film shows in London for Prince. But back home, Paisley was $450,000 behind on its payments to him, and Borm's creditors were getting antsy.
He said he asked Prince about it before a London concert and got a mild scolding: "You should know better than to talk to me about money, especially before a gig." Subsequent lectures were delivered by Prince's attorney and business manager. But the payment was never made.
That's when Borm pulled his crew off the tour and returned to the United States on the advice of an attorney. It took 10 months of rugged negotiations and threatened lawsuits before Borm reached a settlement of $315,000.
But the money wasn't enough to satisfy Borm's creditors. Since Paisley represented 90 percent of his work, his company was essentially doomed: Live by Prince, die by Prince. Point of View Films declared bankruptcy with about $5,900 in assets and $135,000 in debts.
CERTAIN THAT HIS JUDGMENT is on the mark, Prince sometimes grows exasperated when people say "no" to him.
"I don't need a mother," Prince once said to Rice when a business manager tried to reign in his spending.
Several generations of attorneys, managers and accountants have been put through the same wringer. One of the first was Steve Fargnoli, who hooked up with Prince in 1978 and took him to the top.
Prince was exuberant but more impressionable in those days. Fargnoli manages to bottle the magic and parcel it out in marketable bursts.
"He's a pure musician and artist who is so much more prolific than your average rock star," Fargnoli said in his first interview about Prince since being fired in 1989. "He's constantly frustrated by the environment he's in He's constantly trying to grasp at new ideas because it's not moving fast enough."
Because Prince liked to work so much, Fargnoli tried to keep him focused on revenue-generating projects such as writing and producing records for protégés' acts, including The Time.
"There were years when he wrote and recorded four albums," Fargnoli said. "It added up, all that stuff."
But Fargnoli's ability to control Prince's wandering ideas faded with the rocker's ascension to post-"Purple Rain" superstardom.
For example, Prince wanted his second movie, "Under the Cherry Moon," to be black and white; Fargnoli predicted, accurately, that it was a commercial misstep. Fargnoli wanted him to buy an existing studio in Los Angeles; Prince wanted to build Paisley Park Studios in the Twin Cities. (There were minor victories: "He wanted blue mosque domes on it," Fargnoli recalled, "which we, uh, didn't get to.")
Their relationship ended in 1988, when Prince tried to back out of a Japanese tour so he could get to work on his fourth film, "Graffiti Bridge." The shows were already booked and the tickets sold.
"He could have been sued to $10 to $20 million," Fargnoli said. "If you don't show up, you pay for it."
Prince responded by firing him at the start of 1989, at the same time he fired his attorney and business manager. The two traded lawsuits for a few years, with Prince claiming mismanagement and Fargnoli saying he had been libeled in a Prince song. The suits were either dismissed or settled out of court. Fargnoli has written to Prince several times, but there has been no response.
"He looks at it as, 'These guys are old now. We'll get somebody younger,'" Fargnoli said. "It's always, 'They're the new heroes and the old guys are the bad guys.'"
WHEN PRINCE'S DEPOSITION WAS TAKEN for a lawsuit two years ago, he was asked to provide a small description of what he has done since graduating from Minneapolis Central High School in 1976.
"Gotten a job as a songwriter and performer," he lowballed. "I have done some movies, and a lot of concerts."
Of his work at Paisley Park Studios, Prince added: "I basically come in the back entrance and just pretty much use the studios.... I basically work here. I don't run it."
Although he is the sole shareholder in Paisley Park Enterprises, Prince didn't get into the music business to be a corporate executive. The concept at Paisley Park was intended to keep the artist in the process of creating, while professionals ran the recording studios and 12,000-square-foot sound stage. Prince would book his time like anyone else.
Paisley Park's opening seemed to be the culmination of a sweet success story: a local man, from a poor family in North Minneapolis, who willed himself to the top, then chose to give something back to his hometown. Work at Paisley Park helped the Twin Cities film and music communities grow and flourish.
But Paisley needed professional management. After a decade in which he had known only tremendous commercial success, Prince was several million dollars in debt as the '80s drew to a close.
"There was a serious debt level," Rice said. "It was boggling. But there was a way to dig out from beneath it. It was cost cutting."
The financial struggle is confirmed in a deposition by Nancy Chapman, an entertainment industry CPA in Los Angeles who was Prince's business manager from 1989 until last year.
"When we became involved with Prince in his corporate activities, he was in financial trouble," said Chapman, detailing how she and others completely overhauled the company. "...During the first 1 1/2 years of our involvement in his life, this was a search-and-rescue mission."
Sound operation of the studio and new management helped dig Prince out of the hole. Paisley played host to such international superstars as R.E.M. and Madonna, and its sound stage was usually booked solid with commercial and film work. "It was a concentrated effort by a group of people to alleviate the debt and bring it back to a good, solid financial ground," Rice said.
Because Prince is a sharp thinker who devours newspapers and magazines, most people figured the financial crisis would never be repeated. But they say Prince is proving otherwise.
"I don't think he ever did reform his practices," said David Rivkin, a record producer whose association with Prince dates back to the 1970s. "It happened so fast in the beginning for him that it's always been 'easy come, easy go.'"
THE PAISLEY PARK of the '90s has been a roller coaster ride, as company employees attempted to keep up with both the highs and the trials of a workaholic genius.
A bodyguard, Gilbert Davison, was elevated to company president in 1990. Former employees say Davison let Prince do as he pleased, attempting to do damage control when possible. Sometimes he would scurry around behind his boss's back, telling vendors not to heed Prince's expensive requests. "They say, usually after the fact: 'You can't listen to what he says,'" said Marcou, the set designer.
When Prince would learn that his request had been dismissed, Carr said, he would just write a check himself, on an account to which only had access, and get what he wanted.
In interviews with former employees and vendors, Prince's associates said that the business began to stray in new, expensive and unprofitable directions. Prince provided most of the $2 million to launch the Minneapolis Glam Slam nightclub, which was technically owned by Davison. Vanity projects such as a Prince comic book took a lot of time but generated little revenue.
Paisley also ran a 10-person wardrobe department, which made all of Prince's clothing as well as costumes for his band and street clothes for his girlfriends.
Prince's record label, Paisley Park Records, also struggled for financial success. Where Prince had once launched new stars like The Time ad Sheila E., his more recent protégés produced a log string of bombs.
Most notable were Prince's efforts to manufacture hit records for his girlfriends, among them a dancer named Tara Patrick, a k a Carmen Electra, whose aptly titles "Go Go Dancer" album came out in 1993.
The record received a top-drawer promotional campaign worth about $2 million, according to industry sources, about half of which came straight out of Paisley Park's pocket. But the record still died a quick death.
"If it's a personal relationship," said Carr, "he's going to spend money on it."
Some projects have found success. A CD-ROM game featuring Prince has sold more than 60,000 copies and won praise for a pioneering concept that was developed by a California software company. In 1994, the renamed Prince released a single, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," which enjoyed a lengthy Top 10 run -- but was also very expensive for Paisley Park to produce.
Price has also done some high-profile charity work in recent time, performing benefit concerts for the National Kidney Foundation in Minneapolis and the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York.
If Prince noticed the failures, he didn't show it. He told employees he did not want to be involved in business discussions but found himself drawn into them anyway.
Chapman said in her deposition: "I may go to him to run something by him, and his response to me is: 'Why do I have to get involved in this? That is what I pay you for. If I have to make these decisions, why do I have you'"
PRINCE CLEANED HOUSE at Paisley Park in 1994. He appointed his older brother, Duane Nelson, to head a five-member committee that would downsize the company, and pink slips started to fly. Even as the company has continued mounting expensive projects, vendors say that Paisley, and sometimes Prince himself, have asked vendors to take less for their work.
What they told me is that I was being fired on a cutback, and they were eliminating my position," said former wardrobe director Heidi Presnail. The committee disseminated no information explaining the need for cuts.
Longtime employees and confidants left or were fired. Davison left in a dispute related to the ownership of Glam Slam. Sound stage manager Mark "Red" White, who had been with Prince for a decade, left. Chief financial officer Carr was fired. Publicist Karen Lee quit in November. Levi Seacer Jr., a former band member who was running Prince's new NPG Records label, departed at the same time.
Several of those people hired attorneys to collect their money when their severance payments stopped last fall. By year's end, most had negotiated a final settlement with Paisley Park.
Duane Nelson's committee started to resemble a "cage match" in professional wrestling -- last one in the cage wins. Today, Nelson is the only one left from the original downsizing committee.
The studio, meanwhile, has operated less as a business available for rent and more as Prince's private work space. Twin Cities film producers say the sound stage has not been reliably available for some time because of Prince's perpetual video production.
According to the film board's Adamsick, Warner Bros. had to intervene with Prince himself to get the star to clear enough time to shoot the movie "Grumpy Old Men" there in 1993.
Prince has also been asserting himself in the recording studio. Record producer Rivkin said Prince once put up the money to move a Rivkin recording project to Los Angeles because Prince wanted to work at Paisley.
Rivkin, who used Paisley Park so frequently that he rented an office in the building, moved out last summer. The loss of a reliable client didn't stir much interest in the studio, though.
"They didn't seem to give a s--- if I was leaving or not," said Rivkin, who produced the demo tape that got Prince signed to Warner Bros. in 1977. "They just said, 'If you're not going to use this office, can we use it?'"
Despite the financial problems -- and the declining use of the studio by insiders -- Paisley Park invested several hundred thousand dollars in new recording technology last year.
The experience of working at Paisley Park has left some people disillusioned or angry. But some -- even those who have lost jobs -- say they would love to work with the company again and see it prosper.
Julie Hartley was fired as a production assistant last year when Prince accused her of lying about how much it would cost to build "The Endorphinmachine," a new stage set he dreamed up. She remembers with exasperation how Prince ordered all but two members of a film crew off the sound stage, then ordered: "Now here's the shot. I want the bed to get up and fly over me to there."
But the frenetic pace of Paisley was addictive, and she would do it again -- if Paisley Park pulls out of its tailspin.
"I like the allure that that place brings here," she said. "I hope it stays, and I'm sad that it's tarnished."
SIDEBAR ARTICLE #1
PAISLEY PARK ENTERPRISES - Prince's main business, it owns Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen. Paisley Park Enterprises also handles Prince's recording contract with Warner Bros. Records, his publishing royalties and his work producing records for other artists. Recently acquired the Los Angeles version of the Glam Slam nightclub.
PRN PRODUCTIONS - The company that handles transactions related to Prince's touring.
NPG RECORDS - The independent record label that Prince has recently launched in opposition to his contract with Warner Bros. Records. It has two releases so far: the single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" by and "1-800-New-Funk," a compilation of artists on the NPG roster.
PAISLEY PARK RETAIL - The company that owns and operates the New Power Generation stores in Uptown Minneapolis and at the Mall of America. Also sells Prince-related merchandise via an 800-phone line.
HEAVEN & EARTH - The Minnesota Corporation that owns and operates the 4-year-old Glam Slam nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. The corporation is controlled by Gilbert Davison, a former Prince bodyguard who is also the former president of Paisley Park Enterprises. Most of the start-up funding was paid for or arranged by Paisley Park Enterprises, which has no ownership interest in Heaven & Earth.
SIDEBAR ARTICLE #2
CHAIN OF EVENTS
SIDEBAR ARTICLE #3
Symbolic feud continues with Warner Bros.
At an awards ceremony last year, Prince read from a legal pad to explain his side of the war he has waged against his label of 17 years, Warner Bros. Records:
"Perhaps one day, all the powers that are will realize that it is better to let a man be all that he can be than to limit his output to just what they can handle," Prince said at the Soul of American Music awards.
In Los Angeles Monday, Prince will get another chance to explain himself when he meets with Warners chairman Danny Goldberg. The topic: the relationship between Prince and the company, which Prince has described as "institutionalized slavery."
After seeing Prince's strange performance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" Dec. 13th -- in which he sang, "If I came back as a dolphin, would you listen to me then?" before performing a mock suicide -- many fans were more perplexed than ever about Prince's contract struggles.
In a nutshell: Prince has been frustrated that the company won't release his records more regularly. He produces the equivalent of three or four albums a year; the record company would rather have just one and milk it.
Hoping to squirm through a contract loophole, Prince changed his name to and said he would fulfill the remainder of his Warners contract with selection from his 500-song vault of unreleased material. New songs he records, though, would be released on another label as .
While Prince's stand does not seem to hold much promise as a legal theory -- he currently owes Warner Bros. four more albums -- he has won praise from artists. Last month's Musician magazine declared him one of several industry "revolutionaries" who are challenging the status quo that exists between artists and corporations.
At stake in this week's meeting with Goldberg is an album recorded last year called "The Gold Experience," which contains some of Prince's most commercially viable and adventuresome music in years. The lead track, "Gold," has a grandeur that has been compared to "Purple Rain."
Prince representatives have regularly tweaked the company publicly for the past year. "'The Gold Experience' likely will never be released," publicist Mitch Schneider said last week.
The company says that isn't true. "Yes, we would like to put out the next Prince or symbol-person album," said Bob Merlis, vice president for communications at Warner Bros. "And we will, once he delivers the masters." That delivery hasn't taken place.
Warner Bros. executives, who will not speak for the record, say that Prince has at least three times negotiated a deal to release "The Gold Experience," then backed out of it. Once regarded as a reliable, if sometimes hard to handle asset, Prince, they say, has been a different, less reliable person since he changed his name to in 1993.
Adding to the tension was Prince's 1992 announcement that he had signed a $100 million deal with Warners, when the reality was much more modest. The deal did call for Warner Bros. to become a partner in the operation of Paisley Park Enterprises, but that partnership was curtailed about a year ago. Warners spent about $5 million on the partnership.
(c) COPYRIGHT 1995 ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS